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Free to pray - but don't try to convert anyone

Exterior of Saint Mary Greek Orthodox Parish Church in Dubai United Arab Emirates Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption A Greek Orthodox church in Dubai

There is little outward sign of any religion other than Islam in Dubai, but the city is quietly tolerant of other faiths. Rulers have ensured people with different beliefs have a place to worship.

Father Matthew, robed in a white and gold chasuble, turned to face his 60-strong congregation. Middle-class fathers in plaid shirts, older matriarchs under headscarves, smart-skirted women marshalling kids, and even a few muscled guys in T-shirts were scattered across 13 rows of pews in the modern, brightly-lit Roman Catholic church of St Mary.

As Father Matthew raised the communion wine, the Muslim call to prayer began blasting out from the mosque next door.

It was a Thursday evening in Dubai after work - I'd already spotted a few yawns in the back row - and I was sitting in on Mass. Unusually, it was being conducted in Urdu.

The UAE, of which Dubai is a part, has crippling restrictions on freedom of speech. There's widespread media censorship and dozens of activists are in jail. But it also has a little-known history of religious tolerance.

Image caption Celebrating Anglican communion in Holy Trinity church, Dubai

In 1958 Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, father of Dubai's current ruler, permitted a Hindu temple to be built on the roof of the souk. You reach it today along a lane lined with shops selling figurines of gods and goddesses and garlands of roses and marigolds.

The only such temple in a country which now holds perhaps half a million Hindus, this little makeshift space, aromatic with sandalwood, hosts tens of thousands of worshippers each week, both Hindus and Sikhs.

Then in 1966, the year oil was discovered in Dubai, Sheikh Rashid donated a pocket of land to a Roman Catholic mission. The city has since grown up around it, and St Mary's now stands beside a busy four-lane road in central Dubai.

Since Sunday is a working day, one idiosyncrasy of Christian worship here is that the main services are held on a Friday, for many people their only day off. Churches - including St Mary's - host dozens of services, in English and Arabic but also languages from Tagalog to Malayalam.

"We see 7,000 people for Friday Mass," Father Lennie Connully, St Mary's parish priest, told me.

Father Lennie couldn't put a number on Dubai's Catholics, who originate mainly from India and the Philippines. But he was clear about what Dubai offers. "We did not expect such freedom," he told me. "But in this compound we are free to exercise our religious practices."

Image caption The inner courtyard of Holy Trinity Church compound

That's an important qualification. As you move around Dubai, you see no evidence of religion other than Islam. Churches cannot display crosses, and those who preach publicly or try to persuade Muslims to convert can expect jail and deportation.

As my Urdu Mass ended, I met Jerry Robert, the president of Dubai's Pakistani Catholic community.

Originally from Karachi, Robert, tall and confident in a business suit, has been here for 17 years. He's a bank security manager. With Christians of all denominations suffering violent attacks and church-burnings in Pakistan, I asked him about conditions in Dubai.

"Much, much better," he said. "We have freedom in a Muslim country. It's a very safe environment for us. This is what we need in Pakistan."

Beside St Mary's, the Protestant church Holy Trinity stands within another high-walled compound, also built on land donated by Sheikh Rashid. Friday mornings see thousands of people - mainly African and South Asian - attending dozens of services that run simultaneously in chapels and prayer halls. From a packed Revivalist gathering - lots of loud music, arm-waving and "Satan get back!" - I joined an Anglican communion, traditional hymns mumbled over a funereal electric organ. I squeezed into a Hindi Fellowship service and peeked into the Korean church as teenagers belted out Christian rock songs.

Up a double flight of stone steps, the Coptic church was full of people and incense smoke, a red-carpeted room with carved pews, panelled walls and a huge image of Christ painted on the blue ceiling. Cymbals clashed and triangles tinkled as translations of the chanted prayers flowed across two screens in both Arabic and Coptic.

Image caption Father Markos of the Coptic Church

Copts, the largest religious minority in Egypt, face discrimination at home and often violent attacks. Ten thousand or more live in the UAE, and young, bearded priest Father Markos, 12 years in Dubai, told me his flock are "more than happy - they enjoy their life, they are free".

A bystander grasped my hand.

"Life is much, much better than in Egypt," he said. "If you respect the law here, it's OK. There, if they know you're Coptic…" and he grimaced.

There are more churches across Dubai and the UAE, including several - and another place of worship for Sikhs - on land donated by the current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed.

Dubai's record on human rights and political freedom may be miserable. However this strange city is, for some, a haven of religious tolerance.

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